It’s About Time

September 9, 2016

(I had the opportunity to write for CBE182 again this year. It is a forum to share great learning coming from the Calgary Board of Education, and it is great to follow!

It’s about time…

It’s all about time. It takes time for great learning, whether its students engaged in learning to be amazing citizens or teachers engaging in professional learning.

Ponder how you personally learn best… My greatest learning happens through:

  • Discussion with amazing colleagues
  • Building on ideas we create and shape
  • Working on innovative enhancements for learning (which is my passion and my work)
  • Taking risks and being willing to fail
  • Writing for and sharing with an authentic audience (
  • Reflecting on success and failure and the work I do every day

How do we set up conditions for students to learn in the same best ways that we ourselves learn?

  • Discussion with others
  • Creating ideas and building understandings
  • Becoming passionate about their work and learning
  • Learning to take risks and fail (and learn from failure…)
  • Writing for and sharing with an authentic audience (not just their teacher)
  • Reflecting on success and failure and the work they do every day

This year, we are creating time for our teachers:

  • For discussion, creating ideas, working on passions, risk taking, sharing, and reflecting
  • The admin team is releasing teaching teams so that teams have more time to work together
  • We are limiting staff meeting time and using a Google Doc for information items
  • Staff will have time to BUILD (BelPark Unleashing Innovative Learning & Doing) to work on ideas and research to make learning even better! (Sorry, I love acronyms…)

Hopefully, the “timely” risk taking pays off!

Keep learning tons!


Derek Rakowski (@derekrakowski) has been a CBE student, teacher, and principal. He still thinks he has the best job in the world, as he is learning each and every day…


The Perceptions (and the Reality) of Refugee Students – What are we really seeing?

March 2, 2016

In December my school was one of three in the CBE that started up a program whose purpose was to support refugee students who have been identified as English Language Learners with backgrounds of Limited Formal Schooling. The ultimate programming goal of our LEAD class is to provide sheltered, trauma-sensitive, short-term language, academic and cultural instruction to enable students to transition into community classes.

Going in, I had a definite perception of what I thought the students would be when they came and joined us. I want to share what my early thoughts were, and what the actual reality was when they came to our school!

Basic Needs

I have seen a big difference between “Privately Sponsored” families and “Government Sponsored” families. “Privately Sponsored” Refugees have a group of people, such as a school group, who have put up supports for a family to come to Canada. I made assumptions about what our “new to Canada” families would have for basic needs, but it is very dependent on the supports they have. Our “Government Sponsored” families do not have the same levels of support, and we are working to support any of our kids, already in our community or if they are new to Canada, with nutritious food, clothing, footwear, winter clothing, etc.

School Readiness Skills

As our “new to Canada” students have had limited experience in a formal school setting, I did not know what to expect when they joined us. For many of our students, they had to learn much of the basic learning and processes Canadian kids would have learned in Kindergarten. Two things that surprised me were:

  1. Many of the “basic” school skills our “new to Canada” students were missing (e.g. lining up…)
  2. And how quickly our “new to Canada” students learned these skills (not perfectly, but better)

Our “new to Canada” students, with differing levels, came to our school with a desire to learn, respect for others, manners, smiles, parental supports, etc. Just like us…

Ability to Participate in School

Our “new to Canada” students have already become a big part of our school. Community students welcomed them right into our school, want them to integrate into their classes, act as leaders in a reverse integration model, and want to include them in play and social situations. Our “new to Canada” students want exactly the same things any other kid would want. They want to feel included, welcomed, be able to learn and to engage in social activities. We had a Teacher-Student Floor Hockey game, and were not sure if our LEAD students could handle it. They LOVED it! It was their first “hockey game” ever, but even though they had no English and had never seen the game, you should have seen their SMILES!!! J

Parental Support

I had no idea what to expect as to levels of parental support our “new to Canada” students would come with. Guess what? They are exactly like any typical cross section of our Canadian students and parents. All parents want the best for their child, and want to send their best child to school every day. Just like we all do!


School Council and Parents

Our School Council had a great discussion the other night in how we could support our “new to Canada” parents, and I was amazed at the ideas, thoughts, and supports that were raised by our parents from the perspective of parents. They truly want to support our “new to Canada” families, and want to integrate them into our school community as much as possible. They are such an inspiring group, and such a great group of role models for students and parents. They want our new families to feel comfortable to come to our huge Book Fair event, our Family Dance, our assemblies, etc. Just like we all do!


It has been a ton of work for our school staff in getting this program going, and I want to thank everyone, staff, parents and students, for all of your support for both our school and our new to Canada” families.

After all, they are just parents and kids… just like we all are!

Mr. R

Living on the Frontier of Education! – with Dr. Simon Breakspear

January 29, 2016

I was able to spend Friday with Dr. Simon Breakspear, who is known internationally for his practical insights on learning innovation and system reform. He is the founder and CEO of LearnLabs, a global learning research and design agency. We discussed and worked on navigating disruptive change, developing innovation capabilities and how to drive continuous improvement for better learning.

How can established schools learn to embrace change and adapt quickly?

How can educational leaders balance the pressure for system stability with the imperative to innovate learning for the future?

I loved that in our conversations he used the term “Learning Frontiers” (Check out the name of this blog!). We are still on the “frontier” of where we as educators are moving. If, as a teacher, you think we have figured it all out and that our system is perfect, then we will have issues…

Wikipedia defines a “Frontier” as a region at the edge of a settled area. It is a transition zone where explorers, pioneers and settlers were arriving. That is, as pioneers moved into the “frontier zone”, they were changed by the encounter.

I love that we are on the “Frontier” of educational understanding, as this means we are not at our destination yet, and the frontier is always moving. We are becoming better. We are moving into new areas and places. We are not leaving the effective wagons behind, but are improving as we move. Wagons got engines and became cars…

In education, we are always on the Frontier. Education has been improving and adapting since I started, and long since before I came along, since the time when formal education began. We are in a time of unprecedented change. The best schools and educators in the world will be those who can embrace change, adapt quickly and continually innovate towards better and better learning.

Growth for me back as a teacher back in 1996 was moving beyond having kids copy notes on Government off the overhead and calling that “Learning…” My definition of learning has changed so much since then, as has my practice, my beliefs, and my learning behaviors.

I knew that I wanted learning to look better, I just did not yet know how. I looked to others to become better and increase the impact I have had on students, staff and parents that I have had the honour to work with.

To paraphrase Simon, he shared, “I don’t care what you know, I care about what you do when you don’t know…” I turned to the people around me to learn. I am so thankful for the amazing colleagues I work with every day, my online network, and the people who have pushed and challenged me to become better…

And better…

And continually better…

Work smart and learn tons!

The 95% Rule – What are the Consequences of My Leadership on the Learning and Achievement of My Students?

February 2, 2015

“What are the Consequences of My Leadership on the Learning and Achievement of My Students?” (assuming all staff in a school are Leaders of Learning)

I was lucky (or unlucky, depending), as I was one of those kids that was good at remembering and memorizing and “got” the work we were assigned in the classroom. Unfortunately, there was never a need for me to have to “think” or to develop any growth in learning or work competencies, as it came easy for me.

Learning to think and learning how to learn needs to happen in learning from the earliest ages right on through high school and university, and into the work world! I can tell you, I no longer “memorize it for the test” in my work. I think and prepare and experiment and consult and discuss and reflect…

I had the opportunity to listen and think along with Viviane Robinson, author of “Student-Centered Leadership” this morning. The title refers to using the lens What are the Consequences of My Leadership on the Learning and Achievement of Students?” I would suggest that a leader is any teacher or administrator who is expected to help kids learn. She identified 5 Dimensions that have a large effect size on student learning and achievement:

5 Dimensions of Student-Centered Leadership

  1. Establishing Goals and Expectations (0.42) – We need to know what we are trying to accomplish in order to try to get there… What is our vision of great learning and how to we make it more effective?
  2. Resourcing Strategically (0.31) – Time with teachers and students is our scarcest resource, so how we approach curricular decisions is critical. What are we resourcing for, but as well, what are we not resourcing?
  3. Ensuring Quality Teaching (0.42) – How do we improve the impact and effectiveness of our work for students?
  4. Leading Teacher Learning and Development (0.84) – Admin is not just management and having nice uniforms. How do we “UNLEASH” excellent learning in our schools, rather than continue with the status quo?
  5. Ensuring and Orderly and Safe Environment (0.27) – If students don’t feel safe, how will we even get near learning?

(From Viviane Robinson, February 2, 2015)

The 95% rule is the idea that “I control and design 95% of my day by how I act and react.” The more I think on it, the more I see the 5 Dimensions fit both the work of educators and students.

  • What are students trying to accomplish, and do they know? What are students actually doing in our classrooms? (Establishing Goals and Expectations)
  • What are students using their time for? Time with teachers and students is our scarcest resource, so how we approach curricular decisions is critical. What are we resourcing for, but as well, what are we not resourcing? (Resourcing Strategically)
  • How are we designing and implementing the most effective learning opportunities for each and every student? (Ensuring Quality Teaching)
  • How do we unleash students and teachers in their learning, so it goes beyond 8:30 am to 3:00 pm and outside the 4 walls of the school? How do we design learning so that students want to come to school? (Leading Teacher Learning and Development)
  • How do we create an optimum learning environment for ALL students depending on their situation and needs? (Ensuring and Orderly and Safe Environment)

In the end, we need to continue to question and push each other as leaders of student learning to create opportunities to be the most effective we possibly can in improving student achievement. We know that our work is hard, and I am glad for that, as I do not want a binder I can pull off the shelf to “solve” a student. The problems we face around learning are so complex and thus will need complex solutions. We we need to go beyond “satisfactory” approaches to “more and most effective” approaches.

The curse of our work is that it never ends, but the blessing of our work is that it never ends. I love that I have never felt like I have completely figured “it” out. If I ever feel like I have completely figured it out, then I will know that I am in trouble… J

Our work needs to promote every educator’s ability to inquire into their impact on learners, and continually working to have a more effective impact.

We are so lucky to have teachers who are striving for achieving more effective learning for each and every child. It is such an amazingly fun journey!

Work hard, learn tons!

If I Am “Smart,” Do I Have to Work Hard?

October 23, 2014

A bunch of learning questions have been running through my mind today:

  • If I am “smart,” do I have to work hard?
  • If I have trouble at “learning,” do I have to work hard?
  • Can kids learn to be better learners?
  • Can adults learn to be better learners?
  • Can kids learn to play soccer together?
  • Can we become more intelligent?
  • If we put the time and can we become more intelligent?
  • If we put the time in, can we become fluent in another language or music or a sport…?
  • If I have not learned something, is it that I have not learned it yet? Or that I can’t learn it…?

I think these questions, answered honestly, would tell us a lot about our educational practices and how we approach learning.

Am I a “teacher” that disseminates the information? (Sounds like using Google…)

Or am I an “educator” that is an “Activator of Thinking?” Is it my role to enable kids to learn? If the students did not learn it, who needs to worry about that?

This all comes back to our conceptions of assessment and reporting as well. What is the report card intended to do and why do we put all this work into them? What is our purpose in them? The analogy that guides my thinking is:

“Who do kids learn more from, the COACH or the JUDGE?”

Is it the number at the end that the judge gives me on my performance that I learned from? Or, if thinking about professional sports players, is it the hours of video watched and critiqued, the work with the coach to improve, the formative feedback from coaches and teammates, the intent to improve their abilities and skills, and the discussions before, during, and after the practice or game that make all the difference? Or the score in the end? Without the other stuff, the score will not be affected…

Seems like a pretty easy question, but we need to make sure that we are utilizing this thinking with all of our students. In the end it is up to us as to how we approach learning and reporting. If we are designing great learning opportunities, do they have:

  • clear learning intentions
  • challenging success criteria
  • range of learning strategies
  • know when students are not progressing
  • providing feedback
  • visibly learns themselves

SO, how do we help all kids to know that they need to work hard? Not “You are smart so you don’t need to work hard…”

Work hard and learn tons!

What Do We Do WHEN We Make Mistakes? Assessment FOR/AS Learning

May 7, 2014

I know this is shocking, but I make mistakes… LOTS of them… and every once in a while, one of them is a doozy…

I always used to joke with my students that “Teachers never make mistakes!” Of course, this was always after I had made a mistake… I had to take ownership, and show students a mistake is not the end of the world.

Are we “allowed” to make mistakes? That question does not matter, as I make them anyway, whether you allow me to or not. If I am not making mistakes, then I am probably not pushing myself. And friend, I make lots…

I love that we are in a place now that I do not feel that I have to be perfect as a principal and educator, but that I am a human being and will make mistakes. I do not have to put on a show that I know everything and have it all figured out. I make mistakes, but I also try my best to learn from them… and develop… and change… and grow.

How do we, as leaders of education and students, make sure that students feel the same way?

  1. Create a Culture of Risk-Taking… It is okay to try something and fail! It is also okay to try again and again!
  2. Create a Culture of Coaching and Feedback… Do we learn more from a coach (educator) or from a judge (test)? Students need student specific feedback that helps them to improve and to see that improvement.
  3. Create a Culture of Learning (rather than memorizing)… Is the work about LEARNING or is the work about a TEST? Are we better than we were before undertaking the work?
  4. Create a Culture of Purposeful Engagement… I love my work because it is always purposeful, in that I am trying to improve my work, our students, our classrooms, our staff, and our school. I am engaged in my work. Students must feel the same…
  5. Create a Culture of Reflective Thinking… Students need to learn how to be able to set goals around, develop criteria for success, conference and discuss with others, reflect on, and think about their learning. When I was in school, I never needed to reflect, it was only about the score on my test at the end. It was not about learning, it was about memorizing for the test.
  6. Create a Culture of Ongoing Assessment FOR/AS Learning… Assessment FOR/AS learning must be a process that is in everything we do in school. It is in PE, Art, Reading, Writing, citizenship, etc. It is not something we do just before report cards or at the end of a unit…
  7. Create a Culture of Do-Overs… Why not? If I gave up on everything that did not work the first time, I would have learned very little. It was by trying something over and over again as an educator that allowed me to grow. Why not for students? I know the big answer is “time,” but we must ask if we are “Covering” the Program of Studies or “Learning” with the Program of Studies?
  8. Create a Culture of Progress… We will never make education perfect, as it is a human endeavor, although I know we will all keep trying… Education and our understanding has grown immensely since I was a student and even more so in the last couple of decades since I became an educator!

Now, I would look at report cards as being a reflection of their learning, not an average of their work over the year. Where are they right now? What have they learned? Where have they grown and what do they need to work on? There really should be no surprises for parents or students when report cards come home.

We are in an exciting time in education! Will we make mistakes? Yes. Will we learn from them? I hope so. Can we help students to learn this as well? We must…

Who do we learn more from, the COACH or the JUDGE?

April 23, 2014

Last week I had the opportunity to work with Damian Cooper, author of Redefining Fair: How to Plan, Assess and Grade for Excellence in Mixed-Ability Classroom.

It is interesting how my professional practice has changed from being a young teacher in the 1990s wondering why we were starting to talk about “assessment” at all, to my thinking now where I look at Assessment FOR Learning and Assessment AS Learning as being the most critical thing we can do to improve and enhance student learning.

Damian had us consider consider “Five Imperatives” that should guide teachers’ work:

  1. Curriculum must be meaningful, coherent and relevant
  2. Instruction must be responsive to students’ needs
  3. Assessment must be informative
  4. Grading must blend consistency with professional judgment
  5. Communication about learning must be truthful and transparent


One comment that really stuck out that he shared was:

If our assessment practices do not demand THINKING on the part of students, they are probably a waste of time…


He went on to explain by asking this phenomenal question:

“Who do kids learn more from, the COACH or the JUDGE?”


To me, this was a 10.0 comment! Is it the number at the end that the judge gives me on my performance that I learned from? Or, if thinking about professional sports players, is it the hours of video watched and critiqued, the work with the coach to improve, the formative feedback from coaches and teammates, the intent to improve their abilities and skills, and the discussions before, during, and after the practice or game that make all the difference? Or the score in the end? Without the other stuff, the score will not be affected…

Seems like a pretty easy question, but we need to make sure that we are utilizing this thinking with all of our students.

So, how can we support each other in this work? We, as teachers, need to take the time to talk about assessment and how it looks daily in our classrooms. I can help by ensuring that time and structures are in place to enable teachers to:

  • Collaborate with colleagues to agree upon essential learning
  • Collaborate with colleagues to agree upon the assessment tasks students must produce as evidence of essential learning
  • Communicate clearly to students what comprises critical evidence of essential learning
  • Collaborate to come to an understanding that this work is a major part of learning, and not just an add-on!

After all, this reflective thinking is the whole point in why I create this blog!

As an administrator, I need to ask myself some questions that have come out of this thinking:

  • “Who do TEACHERS learn more from, the COACH or the JUDGE?”
  • How can we be (learning) coaches, not judges (or just “principals”) for our teachers?
  • If we expect kids to get it wrong the first time… What about us as professionals? Do we encourage and support each other when we do make mistakes?
  • Is this work optional for teachers? Is it part of our teams? Our PLCs? Our own Professional Practice?

Easy questions to ask, harder to implement, but at least we are on the journey!

Damian Cooper can be found at @cooperd1954 on Twitter and more about him can be found at

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